Obama Continues Effort to Diversify Bench as Groups Urge Senate Action on Judicial Nominations

November 28, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

While lawmakers in Washington are consumed with reaching a budget deal, avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff, the president -- also engaged in the budget battle -- is nonetheless moving ahead on other fronts, such as trying to fill vacancies on the federal bench, which spiked during his first term largely because of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist ways.

The president is also continuing his efforts to diversify a bench that is still dominated by white men. Among the president’s recent nominations is Nitza I. QuiƱones Alejandro for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. If confirmed she would be the “first openly gay Hispanic woman to serve on the bench,” LGBTQ Nation reports. The president’s efforts to create a more representative federal bench contrasts with House Republican leaders who were unable or unwilling to select a woman for the chamber’s major committees, instead,  as noted by The Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery, all the new committee chairs are white men.

People For the American Way’s Marge Baker lauded Obama’s judicial selections, saying they “are emblematic of the president’s commitment to nominating qualified, diverse nominees to the federal bench.”

It appears, however, that Republican leaders in the Senate, for the most part, are not in any rush to fill the vacancies, even though 34 of them are deemed judicial emergencies, meaning the courts are overworked, understaffed. With too many vacancies and overworked judges it makes it incredibly difficult for the justice system to function.

But more than 23 national public interest groups are urging Senate leaders to stop dawdling on judicial nominations. In a Nov. 27 letter to Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader McConnell, the groups say that 19 pending nominations should be voted on before the next Congress.

“Individuals and businesses across America rely on the judicial system and the rule of law to protect their rights,” the letter states. “The Senate plays a vital role in keeping that system working. Indeed, that is one of the Senate’s primary responsibilities, on that distinguishes it from the other chamber.”

The groups, including ACS, the Anti-Defamation League, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, added that “continued obstruction of nominations would further poison the atmosphere, needlessly heighten partisan tensions, and make it far more difficult for the federal government to serve the public interest.” The entire letter and list of the groups that signed it are available here.

One Republican did remove a hold on the nomination of Shelly D. Dick to a federal judgeship in Louisiana. Dick would become the first women to serve on the federal Middle District of Louisiana bench, The Advocate reported. Dick was nominated in April of this year, but Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) refused to return a blue slip approving the nomination. Seven months later and the presidential campaign over, Vitter said he was ready to let the nomination go forward. He told The Advocate that Dick’s nomination could be confirmed by the end of the year.

It was partisanship that stalled the nomination, with Vitter providing no explanation as to why he blocked the nominee. Indeed The Advocate stated that Vitter was blocking the confirmation “in case GOP nominee Mitt Romney could defeat Obama.”

That’s the McConnell way. He has steadfastly taken moves to not only block judicial and executive branch nominations, he has worked with members to halt consideration of a slew of legislation pushed by the Obama administration and Democrats. McConnell appears unwilling to change his ways.

And McConnell’s stubborn, ongoing attempt to foster obstructionism is fueling talk of changing the filibuster. Today, Obama also joined the movement for reform. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said Obama “has said many times that the American people are demanding action. They want to see progress, not partisan delay games. That hasn’t changed, and the president supports Majority Leader Reid’s efforts to reform the filibuster process.”

McConnell, not surprisingly, is browbeating his Republican colleagues to defeat filibuster reform. But as Reid and the president hopefully have learned, McConnell is all about obstruction and regardless of his words is very unlikely to change. So it’s time for the Senate majority to make his efforts to obstruct a bit more difficult.